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Paolo Bacigalupi’s “The Calorie Man” and Patents

Pump Six and Other StoriesThere’s an interesting IP angle in the short story “The Calorie Man” by Paolo Bacigalupi, as Geoffrey Allan Plauché explains in his Prometheus Unbound review. Here’s an excerpt from the review:

As “The Calorie Man” opens, we’re introduced to the main character — an Indian transplant to the American South. Lalji plies the Mississippi River in a kink-spring-powered boat looking for antiques from the Expansion to salvage and sell. But an old friend has an unusual and dangerous job for him now. He is to travel far up north to find and smuggle back to New Orleans a man the big agricultural corporations want captured or killed, a man who supposedly can upend the economic status quo.

This is what makes the story particularly interesting to libertarians. “The Calorie Man” is, at least implicitly, anti-IP. Intellectual property, specifically here in the form of gene patents on crops, is depicted as illegitimate and harmful. The protagonists generally show no qualms with violating the intellectual “property” of Big Ag and thwarting the IP police. Yes, there are dedicated IP police, a particularly insidious scourge we can probably expect in our own near future.

Paolo Bacigalupi probably takes intellectual property to be an inherent part of a capitalist or free market economy. Most people do. He would probably be surprised to learn that a growing number of libertarians oppose IP as an illegitimate grant of monopoly privilege that depends on the state and necessarily violates real property rights when enforced. But to me and many other libertarians, criticism of IP is not criticism of free markets at all.

“The Calorie Man” does suffer from a weakness common to stories written by leftists, however. The bad guys are greedy megacorporations and their thugs. Now, the problem is not so much businesses being portrayed and hinted as doing bad things. They do sometimes, especially the big corporations in bed with the state. The problem is making corporations the bogeyman and downplaying the role of government in the evils of the world. Too often governments are portrayed as altruistic and unbiased, whether competent or not. Or their role is downplayed, with politicians and bureaucrats being portrayed as the weaker, corrupted party. Were it not for those dastardly corporations!

Or, in the case of “The Calorie Man,” the state seems to be entirely absent. Even the IP police are not unambiguously government agents rather than hired corporate ones. Corporations run the world, which reminds me of another common flaw of leftist stories: the failure to see corporations that are literally ruling a region or the world as having become states/governments themselves and ceasing, really, to be businesses (at least in any capitalist or free market sense).

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To the extent possible under law, Stephan Kinsella has waived all copyright and related or neighboring rights to C4SIF. This work is published from: United States. In the event the CC0 license is unenforceable a  Creative Commons License Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License is hereby granted.